A sixth-generation soldier – his forebears fought at Waterloo and participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade – it was the experience of working with the Junior Leaders’ Regiment which drew Mark Taylor towards a career in education. He was appointed deputy bursar and CCF Commander at Cranbrook School in Kent in 1993.
In the nigh-on 30 years since, Mark has held many significant roles within the independent education sector, including chairing the ISBA and sitting on the boards of the ISC and the BSA. He is currently the chair of AGBIS and vice-chair of the ISC, in addition to his day job as the bursar at King’s School, Canterbury. As is the case with 80 per cent of bursars working within the sector, Mark also fills the role of clerk to the governors.
A former pupil at Junior King’s, Mark describes taking the school finance role at King’s Canterbury as “coming home” and pays tribute to the informal and caring environment which the school provides for its students.
During his time as chair of the ISBA, Mark led a working group of representatives from several of the ISC associations which developed and codified best practice guidance on the optimum relationship between governors, heads and bursars.
Designed to promote proper communication, “avoid surprises” – as Mark puts it – and provide a framework for effective cross-working, the recommended modus operandi which emerged from the consultation has been adopted by schools across the sector.
“Some heads can feel threatened by the bilateral dialogue between the bursar and the chair.”
Effective “clerking”, Mark believes, should promote transparency and ensure that everyone involved in the governance of a school is “kept in the loop”; this is achieved through the implementation of robust processes and aided by the overview which the dual role of bursar and clerk, where it exists, provides.
Mark sees an effective working relationship between the triumvirate of the head, the chair of governors and the bursar/clerk as critical to the smooth running of any school. He recognises that some heads can feel threatened by the bilateral dialogue between the bursar and the chair that such an arrangement invites, but believes that open communication can mitigate this.
Focus on the big picture
Mark characterises the role of governors as “eyes on and hands off” when it comes to the day-to-day running of a school but points to their central responsibility for oversight, strategic direction, succession planning and future development.
Governors need to avoid “breaching” into management issues which are dealt with by the executive team but should focus on the big picture issues. Good governance, Mark states, is primarily about strategic planning given that a school’s plan dictates what its long-term operating priorities are going to be. This is where governors can and should add value.
“Governors need to avoid breaching into management issues which are dealt with by the executive team.”
The pandemic has led to many new gubernatorial candidates stepping forward to support their school communities. With the shift on-line driven by the successive lockdowns, AGBIS has been able to provide training to more than 5000 governors via 80+ webinars over the past few months.
These numbers, Mark believes, demonstrate the increased engagement of governors with the strategic direction of their schools. AGBIS recognises that governors are busy people and tries to tailor its training courses to ensure that they scope out and narrate the role of a governing body in an accessible manner and focus on issues which are relevant and helpful for those giving up their time to attend.
In Mark’s view, most governors’ meetings today are genuinely effective forums where key decisions are made. Many schools, already struggling financially in the wake of Covid are confronting issues around the affordability of fees and their ability to pass on the cost of living increases which are surging through the economy.
Historically, when setting their budgets schools calculate their costs – including utility charges, staffing changes and development priorities – and then balance their budget by having to correspondingly increase their fees; but now this is so much more difficult. Schools have got to keep their fees as low as they possibly can as parents, facing many of the same pressures, can’t afford a material increase.
“In the UK the average ‘fee income dependency’ is close to 100 per cent.”
This means that schools have got to look at alternative ways of bringing in new sources of income. In this context, Mark urges British schools to look at the experience in the US. In the UK the average “fee income dependency” is close to 100 per cent whereas in equivalent American schools it is far lower. He believes that US schools tend to have more established fundraising programmes and that much can be learnt from them. He also points to the royalty income which some schools earn from international franchising and how this can be used to underpin far-reaching, transformational bursary programmes, amongst other priorities.
The experience and insights governors can bring from the world outside education are essential in these circumstances and play a key role in defining and setting financial priorities and ensuring that school budgets remain sound whilst maintaining the essential nature of the schools themselves.
To illustrate this point, Mark references one of his own governors at King’s who urged that a proposed investment in a new school International College should only proceed if there was a fall-back position whereby the facility could be sold on as a hotel and the original investment recovered if the school’s needs changed.
Understanding the culture
The mental health of their entire school community – ie of both students and staff – has been high up on the agenda of every governing body over the months of the pandemic. Mark believes that in this context, as in so many others, it is critically important for governors to “understand the culture of their school”. He talks passionately about the importance of a governor’s “ability to triangulate” and thereby to seek evidence to underpin the information and insights provided in a head’s report by talking to members of the wider school community.
“Collectively, the sector needs to communicate the diversity of the independent school community.”
Having served on many of their boards over the years, Mark believes that the professional associations work effectively together under the leadership of the ISC, describing Barnaby Lennon, the chair, as “hugely capable and effective”. Whilst, inevitably, there will be different views on certain topics from different parts of the sector, he says it is the associations “all sitting around the table, wanting to go in the right direction and achieve the best for the sector” which has secured the influence independent schools enjoy collectively within government. This was particularly significant during the turbulence of the pandemic.
Fingers in ears
Recently, there have been suggestions, not least in the pages of this magazine, that the independent school sector as a whole should become a little more effective in shouting about its achievements and countering some of the inbuilt prejudice observed in the media.
Mark acknowledges that some commentators have “their fingers in their ears” despite the excellent data the ISC publishes on the benefit delivered by the sector. He believes that there is a need to “take every opportunity to focus a bit more strongly” on challenging embedded pre-conceptions, referencing as an example the lazy choice of images of students wearing boaters to illustrate an article on independent schools made by so many picture editors.
Mark feels that, collectively, the sector needs to “change the emphasis” and communicate the diversity of the independent school community. He points out that far from being the bastions of privilege characterised by the media, around half of the ISC schools, mostly operating on tight budgets, have less than 300 pupils and are serving hardworking parents from their local community who are covering fees from earned income.
“Independent schools no longer seek to shelter behind their walls – if they ever did.”
He feels parents want choice and this is what the “dedicated, passionate educators” in the sector strive to provide. He also feels that more needs to be said about both the extensive bursary programmes which many schools are able to offer and the excellent partnership working which is undertaken with the state school sector. Independent schools no longer seek to shelter behind their walls – if they ever did. They are very much a part of their local community and seek to engage with it effectively.
Asked how he sees the future of the independent school sector over the next few years, Mark observes that this is a “tough time” and the sector as a whole is, necessarily, going through a period of regrouping. Lockdown has demonstrated how important it is that a school is “commercially-minded and gets the balance between being a school and a business absolutely right”.
Schools need to look to be as financially efficient as they possibly can be. As a bursar – and de facto a chief financial officer – of many years’ standing Mark says that there are many ways in which this can be achieved. One he favours is an anonymised benchmarking system which allows a school to see how a group of similar schools are performing in different areas, what surpluses they are making and how these are deployed.
Schools need to learn from each other and share best practice in order to secure the financial well-being of the broad-based sector. There is a lot of support available from the ISC, AGBIS and the other associations which Mark urges schools of all sizes to draw on.
Grounded in reality
In Mark Taylor the independent school sector has an advocate who has seen and done much and whose impact has stretched well beyond the schools in which he has worked. Nevertheless, refreshingly, one of his guiding principles remains to keep asking questions. Whether you are a governor, a head or a bursar, Mark’s advice is to keep asking yourself and those around you “how do you know?” – thereby making sure your decisions are grounded in reality.
This article first appeared in the summer edition of Independent School Management Plus magazine, out now.